Dr. Ritu Khosla

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  • Life Sketch
  • Reforms for emancipation of women
  • Pioneer of modern western education
  • Political Reforms
  • Supporter for individual freedom
  • Reasons for support of British rule




Raja Ram Mohan Roy is hailed as “the Father of Modern India”. He made an attempt to combine the western and eastern philosophy. His writings and ideas are example of synthesis of ancient Indian ideas with modern Western Political thought. A review and reevaluation of existing religious dogmas was Roy’s primary concern which led to the establishment of Brahmo Samaj in 1828. The Samaj provided a forum for contemplation and discussion. Roy was familiar with diverse languages, cultures and philosophies and all these influences shaped his writing and ideas. He conducted a deep study and analysis of Hinduism in order to reinterpret the basic tenets of religion. In doing this, Roy wanted to prove that blind faith and superstitious beliefs and practices had no basis in the original Hindu religion. According to Roy, another factor responsible for deteriorating political and social milieu was the social decadence of the Indian Society. He wanted to build a new Indian society where  principles of tolerance, sympathy, reason, liberty, equality and fraternity would be honoured. In all this, he believed that the support of the British government was essential. Roy carried on relentless crusade against all kinds of injustices, exploitative practices and superstition.




The Unit deals with the political thought of Raja Ram Mohan Roy. He was an eminent religio us and social reformer of the19th century India. He was the founder of Liberal tradition Inlndi an political thought. After going through this unit, you should be able to :

  • appreciate the role of socio religious reform movements in the making of modern India,
  • understand the crusade started by Roy against the cruel and barbarous social pra ctices,
  • explain the meaning and significance of Liberalism in shaping modem Indian p olitical thought. Key words: Brahmo Samaj, Atmiya sabha, Idol worship and orthodox Hindu rituals, caste system, Sati, Anglo-Hindu school.




Ram mohan Roy was born on 22 May 1772 in an orthodox Brahman family at Radhanagar in Bengal, His father, Rama kanta Roy, was a revenue official and dependent land-holder under the Maharani of Burdwan.1 Rammohan’s early education included the study of Persian and Arabic at Patna, where he read the Koran, the works of the Sun mystic poets of Persia and the Arabic translations of the works of Plato and Aristotle. Then he went to Benares, to study Sanskrit and read the ancient Hindu scriptures, especially the Vedas and the Upanishads. Returning to his village at the age of sixteen, he wrote a rational critique of Hindu idol worship Which invited criticism from all quarters Raja Ram Mohan had to leave his home


1  Thomas Pantham; Political Thought in Modern India Paperback – January 4, 1986


even. From there he went to different places including Tibet, from where he secured a first-hand knowledge of Buddhism, and to Benares, where he undertook further studies of the Sanskrit texts of the Advaita-Vedanta school. From 1835 to 1814, he worked for the East India Company as the personal Diwan first of Wood forde and then of Digby. The association with English civil servants, especially Digby, was instrumental in Roy’s study of modern Western thought.2 In 1814, he resigned from his job and moved to Calcutta in order to devote his life to religious, social and political reforms.


In November 1830, he sailed for England to be present there to counteract the possible nullification of the Act banning sati (widow-burning); powerful propaganda had been mounted by the orthodox Brahmans against the banning of sati in 1829 by William Bentinck, (the British Governor-General of India). Again Raja Ram Mohan was given the title of ‘Raja’ by the titular Mughal Emperor of Delhi, whose grievances the former was to present before the British king. In England, Raja Ram Mohan was well-received by the king and the Directors of the East India Company. Among his important activities in England was the presentation of a memorandum to the Select Committee of the House of Commons on the Revenue and Judicial Systems of India.


Raja Ram Mohan Roy inaugurated the age of enlightenment and liberal reformist moderinsation in India.


To achieve all this he relied heavily on his wide knowledge of Perse-Arabic, Classical Greek, Vedantic and modern Western thought. He had learnt as many as ten languages— Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit, English, Urdu, Hindi, Hebrew, Greek, Latin and French—and was influenced by such contemporary events such as the French Revolution and the freedom movements in Naples, Spain, Ireland and Latin America. Hence, his concerns as a reformer and thinker were not confined to India.


This has been acknowledged by, among others, Jeremy Bentham, C.F. Andrews, Brajendranath Seal and Rabindranath Tagore. Andrews called him the ‘pioneer of the whole world movement,3 while Bentham, before he met Raja Ram Mohan during the latter’s visit to England, addressed him in a letter as an ‘intensely admired and dearly beloved collaborator in the service of mankind’.4 Tagore has assessed Raja Ram Mohan’s work in the following words:


2 While Digby was in England on leave in 1817, he published from London Raja Ram Mohan Roy’ translations

of the Kena Upanishad and Abridgment of the Vedanta.


3 C.F. Andrews at the Raja Ram Mohan Roy Centenary Celebrations at Cuttack, Orissa, in 1933, as cited in

D.R. Bali, Modern Indian Thought (New Delhi: Sterling, 1980), p. 7.


4  J. Bowring, ed., The Works of Jeremy Bentham (Edinburgh: 1843), Vol. 10, p. 589.


“There was a day when, all alone, Ram Mohan Roy took his stand on the common claim of humanity and tried to unite India with the rest of the world. His vision was not dimmed by obsolete conventions and customs”. Raja Raja Ram Mohan Roy inaugurated the age of enlightenment and liberal-reformist modernisation in India.


He taught us that truth belongs to all men, that we Indians belong to the whole world. Ram Mohan extended India’s consciousness in time and space.5


Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s immediate problemanque was the religious and social degeneration of his native Bengal. Raja Ram Mohan adopted three approaches to socio-religious reform: (i) exposing and discrediting those religious dogmas and practices which are irrational and/or contrary to social comfort; (ii) the promotion of modern Western education; and(iii) state action in support of both these programmes


Several of the degenerate features of Bengal society were singled out scornfully in Raja Ram Mohan’s first published work, Tuhfal-ul Muwahhiddin (A Gift to the monotheist),( published in 1803-4 at Murshidabad, where he was living at that time. It was written in Persian with a preface in Arabic). In it, he exposed such irrational religious beliefs and corrupt practices of the Hindus like belief in revelations, prophets and miracles, the seeking of salvation through bathing in a river and worshipping a tree or being a monk and purchasing forgiveness of their crime from the high priests’ and the ‘hundreds of useless hardships and privations regarding eating and drinking, purity and impurity, auspiciousness and inauspiciousness.6


Raja Ram Mohan was particularly concerned with orthodox religious doctrine and practices. He noted that in the name of their separate religious orthodoxies, people develop discord among themselves by “giving peculiar attributes to that Being and … [by] holding different creeds consisting of the doctrines of religion and precepts of Haram (the forbidden) and Halal (the legal).7


In the introduction to his Bengali translation of the Sama Upanishada, he pointed out the need ‘to correct those exceptionable practices which not only deprive Hindus in general of the common comforts of society but also lead them frequently to self-destruction.8


5 Rabindranath Tagore in Bharatpathik Raja Ram Mohan Roy, as cited in V.S. Naravane, Modern Indian

Thought (Bombay, Asia, 1964), p. 23

6 V.C. Joshi,Ram mohan roy and the process of modernization in india (1975)

7 See D.H. Bishop,Thinkers of the Indian Renaissance (New Delhi: Wiley Eastern, 1982), p. 7

8  As cited in Radharaman Chakraborti, ‘Raja Ram Mohan Roy: His Vision of Social Change,’ in A.K.

Mukhopadhyay, ed., The Bengali Intellectual Tradition (Calcutta: K.P. Bagchi, 1979), p. 23.


Raja Ram Mohan identified himself with the victims of religious orthodoxies, which, he wrote in Tuhfat, ‘have become causes of injury and detrimental to social life and sources of trouble and bewilderment to the people, instead of tending to the ameliorate of the condition of society.


How is it that the irrational and corrupt religious beliefs and practices which militated against the social comforts and political unity of the people were actually followed by them? Raja Ram Mohan’s answer was that the priestly class which invented and perpetuated those dogmas and doctrines derived benefits from them. He wrote:

“Many learned Brahmans are perfectly aware of the absurdity of idolatry, and are well informed of the nature of the purer mode of divine worship. But as in the rites, ceremonies, and festivals of idolatry, they find the source of their comforts and fortune, they . . . advance and encourage it to the utmost of their power, by keeping the knowledge of their scriptures concealed from the rest of the people”.9


From this diagnosis, Raja Ram Mohan concluded that religious reform is both social reform and political modernisation. He conceived of reformist religious associations as instruments of social and political transformation. Accordingly, he founded the Amitya Sabha in 1815, the Calcutta Unitarian Association in 1821 and the Brahmo Sabha in 1828, which later became the Brahmo Samaj. The original manifesto which he himself wrote for the Brahmo Samaj reads as follows:


No graven image shall be brought in the Samaj. No sermon, discourse, prayer or hymn shall be delivered except such as may have a tendency to promote the contemplation of the Author and Preserver of the Universe, to the furtherance of charity, morality, piety, benevolence virtue, and the strengthening of the bonds of union between men of all religious persuasions and creeds.10


Raja Ram Mohan came to the conclusion that for the emancipation of the people, the monopoly of the orthodox Brahmans over the sacred texts had to be undermined. In other words, their exclusive rights to read and interpret the books of knowledge had to be challenged. ‘In order to vindicate my own faith and that of our forefathers, he wrote, ‘I have been endeavouring to convince my countrymen of the true meaning of our sacred books.’11


9English Works of Raja Ram Mohan Roy (Calcutta: 1947), Vol.2, p. 44.

10V.S. Naravane, modern Indian thought (1964) p. 26

11English Works of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, p. 90.


Accordingly, he set himself the task of interpreting the Vedantic literature and translating them into the vernacular. During the period 1815 to 1823, he published Translation of an Abridgement of the Vedant and translations of several of the Upanishads into Bengali, Hindi and English. In this respect, Raja Ram Mohan was a modem Indian Luther.


From his comparative analysis of different religious , Raja Ram Mohan concluded that there are three basic tenets in all religions: (i) belief in one Universal Supreme Being; (ii) belief in the existence of the soul; and (iii) belief in life after death. Raja Ram Mohan accepts these beliefs on the basis of reason and/or social utility. Other than these basic tenets, he finds many false and many objectionable dogmas and doctrines in Hinduism as well as in other religions. These, he says, must be rejected, for which he offers the following justification:


If mankind are brought into existence, and by nature formed to enjoy the comforts of society and the pleasure of an improved mind, they may be justified in opposing any system, religious, domestic or political, which is inimical to the happiness of society, or calculated to debase the human intellect.12




Raja Ram Mohan is well known for his pioneering thought and action on the emancipation of women and especially on the abolition of sati or widow-burning. He, to use the words of David Kopf, found Bengali Hindu women ‘uneducated and illiterate, deprived of property rights, married before puberty, imprisoned in purdah, and murdered at widowhood by a barbaric custom of immolation known as sati.13


Unless women were freed from such inhumane forms of oppression, Raja Ram Mohan felt, Hindu society could not progress. He characterized sati as ‘the violation of every humane and social feeling’ and as symptomatic of ‘the moral debasement of a race’. Just as he opposed the orthodox Christian doctrine of Atonement, so he rejected the theory that the wife can, or has to, atone for the sins of her husband. He also cited the Sacred Texts to show that they permitted the wife to continue her life after her husband’s death. Ram Mohan Roy was largely as a result of Raja Ram Mohan’s campaign, sati was banned by Lord Bentinck in 1829.


Raja Ram Mohan also advocated widow remarriage, female education and the right of women to property.


12 See Bimanbehari Majumdar, History of Indian Social and Political Ideas (Calcutta: Book land


13 See note 24 above.




Raja Ram Mohan’s attitude towards the caste system was somewhat ambivalent. While he practised some of the overt caste rules (e.g., the wearing of the sacred thread), he noted that God makes no distinction of caste and that ‘our division into castes . . . has been the source of want of unity among us.’14




Raja Ram Mohan was a pioneer of modem Western education, which, he believed, would enlighten the Indians against the superstitions and injustices of religious orthodoxies. The mere study of ancient, Sanskrit texts, he said, would only ‘keep the country in darkness. In his famous letter on education to Lord Amherst, he wrote:


If it had been intended to keep the British nation in ignorance of real knowledge, the Baconian philosophy would not have been allowed to displace the system of the school-men which was the best calculated to perpetuate ignorance. In the same manner the Sanskrit system of education would be the best calculated to keep this country in darkness if such had been the policy of the British legislature. But as the improvement of the native population is the object of the Government, it will consequently promote a more liberal and enlightened system of instruction, embracing Mathematics, Natural Philosophy, Chemistry, Anatomy, with other useful sciences.15


In 1816, Raja Ram Mohan founded an English school and some years later he lent support to the founding of the Hindu College. In 1825, he started the Vedant College, in which the study of Western knowledge was combined with that of Indian learning.





In Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s economic and political thought, there are some uncertainty between liberal-capitalist and feudal-aristocratic values as well as between colonial and post-colonial orientations.


14D.H. Bishop, op. cit., p. 21

15The English Works of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Vol. 4, p. 108


The socio-historical changes that Raja Ram Mohan was responding to did not permit any neat and simple theoretical and philosophical treatment or paradigmatic encapsulation. In the face of the unprecedented socio-historical changes that were unfolding before him, he, in his writings, advocated the cause of what he felt were the liberating and growth-promoting forces and opposed what seemed to him to be the oppressive and growth-inhibiting features of the emerging political economy.


Initially, as he himself acknowledged, he had a ‘great aversion’ to British rule, but subsequently he’ became its admirer and responsible critic.


The basic ingredients of Rom Mohan Roy’s political thought seem to have been from the anti-medievalist composition of his general philosophy of life.16


He derived a system of social ethics, in which individualistic ethics was tempered by the principle of communitarian ethics. In economics and politics, while he recognised the autonomy of the sphere of both, he also emphasised the role of religion as a rational regulative principle of both economics and politics and as an instrument for creating an ideal state.




Ram Mohan Roy’s political thought can be understood correctly as great synthesizer. In the field of social ethics, he tried to harmonise social authority with individual freedom.


According to him, individual progress is the criterion of social progress, but individual progress is impossible unless the conditions of social progress are created and sustained by social action.


Like Locke, Grotius and Thomas Paine, he believed in the immutable sanctity of ‘natural rights’, including the right to life, the right to property, the right of free speech and the right of free association-the fundamental ‘human rights’ as understood in the modern world. Nevertheless, his ethical sheet-anchor was the Benthamite principle of the ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number’. Moreover, he understood that ‘natural rights’ did not imply any possibility of the violation of the equal right of others.





16 Indian Political Thought Hardcover – 2012 by Ray B N


Broadly speaking, there were two main reasons for Raja Ram Mohan’s favorable attitude towards British rule in India.


First, he was persuaded that British rule, unlike the despotic and tyrannical rule of the Mughals or the Rajputs, provided security and other civil liberties to the Indian people.


Secondly, he felt that the introduction of capitalist norms and principles by the British were contributing to India’s economic development.


In his political thinking he admired the British system of constitutional government for the civil liberties it gave to the people. He wanted to extend the benefits of that system of government to the Indian people. He wrote: ‘I am impressed with the conviction that the greater our intercourse with European gentlemen, the greater will be our improvement in literary, social and political affairs.’17


He sympathised with the freedom struggles of the Greeks and the Neapolitans. The French Revolution gladdened him. He rejoiced at the passage of the Reform Bill of 1832 by the English Parliament and the successful revolt by the Spanish colonies in South America. Yet he welcomed British rule over India. Commenting on his philosophy, B. Majumdar writes:


“He was the first Indian who imbibed the spirit of the English constitution and demanded civil liberty with all its implications. Fully Aware as he was of the limitations of the Indians of his age he never thought of demanding political liberty for them. He was conscious of the ignorance and superstitions that enveloped the minds of his countrymen, who betrayed a deplorable lack of public spirit in their conduct. So he could not think them capable of exercising self-government. The great problem which confronted the well-wishers of India in the first half of the nineteenth century was not autonomy for India but the bare recognition of the principles of justice and security of life and property.”18


Raja Ram Mohan Roy attributed India’s decline in the immediate pre-British period to the ‘tyranny and oppression” of the Rajput rulers and the despotism of the Muslim rulers. In contrast, British rule appeared to him as providing to the Indians a God-sent opportunity of securing civil liberties.


Raja Ram Mohan Roy believed that the British rulers, who enjoyed civil and political liberties in their country, could ‘also interest themselves in promoting liberty and social


17 The English Works of Raja Raja Ram Mohan Roy, p. 917 B. Majumdar, op. cit., pp. 27-28.


happiness, as well as free inquiry into literary and religious subjects, among those nations to which their influence extends.19


Ram Mohan Roy realised that India is as diverse as humanity itself – a sense of confluence of many languages, religions, customs and social practices, diverse sub-cultures and varieties of experience on many levels. He perceived that India must have a modern secular state and a modern economy. But this does not mean secularism in the sense of preoccupation of the state and the individual with materialistic self-interest unconcerned with religion. Ram Mohan Roy thought that in a country like India in which religion pervades diverse cultures and sub-culture in variety of subtle ways, what secularism required is a broadening of the base of religion as humane culture by ridding it of superstition, ritualism and blind conformity to scriptures and tradition and making it as a constructive and liberating social force. He wanted a theology liberation and freedom.


Raja Ram Mohan Roy believed that in his time, Indians could derive the advantages of the liberal spirit of British public or political life if the laws for India were made by the British Parliament rather than by an Indian Legislative Council located on Indian soil. If such a legislative council was set up, he feared that it would be controlled by the British Governor-General of India and his Council. That would be in contravention of the principle of separation of powers, of which Raja Ram Mohan was an ardent supporter.


‘In every civilised country,’ he wrote, ‘rules and codes are found proceeding from one authority, and their execution left to another. Experience shows that unchecked power often leads the best men wrong and produces general mischief.’20


He maintained that if legislation for India was left to the British Parliament, it would benefit from the liberal public opinion in England. He was aware of the difficulties involved in making liberal legislation for a distant land. He, therefore, proposed three measures to ensure that the British Parliament makes good laws for the Indian people: (i) a free press; (ii) commissions of inquiry; and (iii) ascertaining the views of ‘gentlemen of intelligence and respectability’ ,21


20 ibid., p. 37

21 Ibid., p. 34


Only these classes seemed to him to be able to exert any influence on the government in those times.


Both through his writings and through his activities, Raja Ram Mohan Roy supported the movement for a free press in India- When press censorship was relaxed by Lord Hastings in 1819, Raja Ram Mohan founded three journals: The Brahmanical Magazine (1821); the Bengali weekly, Samvad Kaumudi (1821); and the Persian weekly, Mirat-ul-Akbar (1822). John Adams, who succeeded Lord Hastings as Governor-General, re-imposed press censorship in March 1823. Against this a petition was made to the Supreme Court by Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Dwarkanath Tagore and several others. When the petition was rejected by the Court, Raja Ram Mohan submitted an appeal to the King-in-Council which too was rejected.


The British colonial case against a free press in India was that India’s was a colonial administration and not a representative constitutional government and that there was no effective public opinion in India.


Raja Ram Mohan argued that a free press will help to generate such a public opinion. He also maintained that precisely because India was a colony, it stood in greater need of a free press if a revolutionary overthrow of the rulers was to be avoided.





Ram Mohan has a definite understanding of the nature and function of the modern state. In his opinion, the chief function of the state is to protect the life, religion and property of the individuals. For this reason the sovereign in the state must have power to enforce law and order.


He argued that since 1712 until the emergence of the Company as a political power there was no effective political force in India. Akbar II, the last but one representative of the imperial throne of Timur, enjoyed only the empty title of “King of Delhi” without royal prerogative or power. Ranjit Singh’s power was confined to north-western India only. The new middle classes were no doubt a significant social and economic force in Bengal, but they lacked cohesion to become an effective political force and had no influence outside the province.


The British were in those circumstances the only effective political force in the country and what was more important, had used that position to maintain orderly relations of exchange and to protect the lives, religion and property of the individuals. It was also in British India that the literary and political improvements were continuously going on.


But he emphatically asserted that sovereignty must not be in the office of the Governor-General or his subordinate officers but in King-in-Parliament, who was the supreme legislative power in the country.




In order to introduce reforms in judicial administration, Ram Mohan recommended the codification of the criminal and civil law and the publication of the two codes in Indian languages to familiarize the community with the law of the country. In the Benthamite fashion he argued that the code of criminal law ought to be “simple in its principles, clear in its arrangement and precise in its definitions, so that it may be established as a standard of criminal justice in itself.”


Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s focus, however, was not on any organisational blue-print for a re-structured world order. His preoccupation rather was with synthesising a transnational, humanist culture. He appreciated the liberal, scientific, world-affirming attitude of modem Western thought. But he critique its foundation in the conflictual cosmology of the Judeo-Christian tradition of thought which justifies the violence done unto one being or person in atonement for the sins of another. He appreciated the spiritual (inner self and self-purification) and communitarian values of Advaita-Vedanta. But he disapproved of its world-denying and self-denying assumptions.


By such a critique of cultures and religions, he undermined the cultural arrogance of orthodox Brahmans, Christian missionaries and Macaulayan educationists. Thus, he, as noted by Brajendra nath Seal, paved the way for a synthesis between Eastern and Western social values and postulates against the common background of universal humanity.” In other words, he pointed the way “to the solution of the larger problem of international culture and civilisation in human history, and became a precursor… a prophet of the coming Humanity.”22 Hailing Raja Ram Mohan Roy as the herald of a world society, Rabindranath Tagore wrote :


“ Raja Ram Mohan Roy paved the way for a synthesis between eastern and western social value and postulated against the common background of universal humanity”


22 B. Seal, Raja Ram Mohan, The Universal man (Calcutta: Sadharan Brahmo Samaj, 1933), p. 1.




Thus it can be safely concluded that Raja Ram Mohan Roy was the only person in his time to realise completely the significance of the modem age. He knew that the ideal of human civilisation does not lie in isolation of independence, but in the brotherhood of inter-dependence of individuals as well as nations. His attempt was to establish our peoples on the full consciousness of their own cultural personality, to make them comprehend the reality of all that was unique … in their civilisations in the spirit of sympathetic cooperation.23He was the pioneer of modern education and a socio religionist par excellence.

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